Hiking in Glacier National Park is an unforgettable experience, and hiking the Asulkan Valley Trail is no exception. The park is located in the wet section of British Columbia and has towering peaks that collect huge amounts of moisture. Hiking trails run through three distinct zones:
Rating - Expert
Distance - Approximately 13 kilometers one-way
Elevation Gain - 975 meters!
Duration - 10 hours round trip
When To Go - Mid-July to Mid-September. Any earlier and there's higher risk of an avalanche.
Location - Glacier National Park is 1 hour west of Golden or 7 hours east of Vancouver.
Located in the Columbia Mountain Range, Glacier National Park was created in 1886 along the first national transportation corridor in Canada. The Canadian Pacific Railroad ran the first national rail line through the Roger's Pass. In 1910, it was the site of the worst avalanche disaster in Canadian history. The sacred section of rail line can now be biked & hiked along the Roger's Pass Abandoned Rail Trail.
In 1962, the Trans Canada Highway punched through the same pass to create the longest national highway in the world. Due the high snowfall, Parks Canada and the Department of National Defense run the largest avalanche control program in the world to keep transportation corridor open.
Over the centuries, the snow pack has gathered to create a scenic collection of glaciers. The following entry is a personal account from the expert hiker Barry Taylor on the journey on the Asulkan Valley Trail.
"This is my last day of hiking in Rogers Pass on this trip. It is a brisk, cool morning but the sky is clear and most of the smoke from the huge fires in central B.C. has dissipated. It is forecast to be a very hot day. The Asulkan Valley hike is 15 kilometers return with a net elevation gain of 925 meters to the end of the trail near Asulkan Hut. I have saved this trek for the end because I have heard many great reports about this Asulkan Valley hike. The Falcon Hiking Guide for Glacier National Park rates it as one of the Top Ten Hikes in the area based on Best Overall Views.
The problem is that I do not feel like hiking. I suspect my lethargy is caused by being hiked out. I have had enough, but it is incumbent upon me to at least try. It will go one way or the other.
I finish a hearty breakfast at Glacier Park Lodge, make the familiar 5 KM drive to the Illecillewaet Campground parking area and begin hiking at 8:15 AM. A quick jaunt on the 1885 Trail and a left turn through the old Glacier House foundations delivers me quickly and directly onto the Asulkan Valley Trail. The front end is familiar from previously hiking the Great Glacier Trail and soon I pass that junction. The trail is excellent and the musty aroma of old growth forest and wet moss is working its magic on me. I am feeling better and beginning to have fun.
As the valley tightens, I alternate between forest and open trail. The sun is warming up the day. I begin hiking beside Asulkan Brook through large rock falls. Hoary marmots are basking in the sun on top of large boulders as they monitor my progress. Huge waterfalls are roaring straight down from the steep slopes of Abbott ridge on the other side of Asulkan Brook. The sound echoes and amplifies in the massive rock falls. I cross a removable wooden bridge over Asulkan Brook and the trail soon takes me past the junction for the Glacier Crest Trail.
As I break out of the forest again, the Asulkan Glacier comes into view far in the distance. The farther I hike, the more spectacular the views become. Roaring, rushing, milky water is everywhere. The sun is dancing on water and shadows shorten as the sun begins to fill the valley. I am feeling excited now and committed to completing the hike. It is a truly phenomenal hike and I have seen only a hint of what will unfold.
The quality of the trail remains good as I begin to gradually gain elevation more aggressively. As I cross the dual aluminum plank bridge back across the Asulkan Brook, there is a short section of forest before I begin climbing up the top of a lateral moraine. The pitch steepens. It is a ridge walk with a valley down to my left and unfolding glaciers up on my right. It is amazing. I can't wait to get to the top but the nature and rugged surface of the narrow trail demand attention and compromise. When I look back I can see the distinctive green roof at Glacier Park Lodge some 10 kilometers distant. I climb with abandon and it just keeps getting better. There is more ice revealed with every step. There are pink-tinged algae growing on ice and snow slopes.
At the end of the moraine, just as the edge of the bowl becomes visible, the trail swings left and begins the final half kilometer of the character-building, gut-crunching climb. At the top is the end of trail sign and cairn. The view is spectacular. There is just a bit of a breeze taking the edge off the heat from the sun.
Asulkan Hut and outhouse is a short distance away. I leave gear at the cairn and begin my photographic tour of the hut and bowl below the Asulkan Neve. I climb to the top of a knoll above the locked and currently uninhabited Asulkan Hut which is managed by the Alpine Club of Canada for mountain climbers requiring temporary accommodation for staging climbs to local mountain summits. This particular hut can accommodate up to 12 mountain climbers. From the top of the knoll I take a brief video of the magnificent mountain scenery surrounding me. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The weather is perfect. At this altitude the cool air balances perfectly with the powerful sunlight.
View Asulkan Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, BC in a larger map
I have my lunch in a sunny, sheltered spot and gaze across the bowl to the glacial pond being fed by melt from the glaciers above. Small waterfalls tumble over rock ground smooth by the recession of massive ice over thousands of years. The sound of falling water bounces from sheer rock surfaces that deceive its accurate location. I am reluctant to leave.
It is important to get to lower elevations before the oppressive heat and humidity of mid-afternoon sun. The refuge is back into the forest. Shortly after I drop down the rugged switchbacks onto the lateral moraine, I encounter three hikers who are several years older than me and they are clearly labouring in their effort. I stand aside to let them pass and lend a few encouraging words, mention the steep bit at the end and assure them the reward and magnificent vistas are worthy of their time and energy. Perhaps I added a few footsteps to their journey. I admire their tenacity and will to succeed. It will be a hot down climb for them but the spectacular view, the cool breeze off the glaciers and food and rest will renew their spirits.
Within a couple of kilometers of completion I meet a British family with two preteen daughters who are getting eaten alive by biting insects. I provide the insect repellent lotion so the daughters, who are determined to turn back, will be able to continue a bit further for better views of the glaciers from the valley. They will not be able to do the entire trail. The girls are worried about bears so I take a moment to dispel their fears before continuing my trek home. The Asulkan Valley hike is, hands down, one of the best I have done in my life but it is not a season opener. I finish at 4 PM.
The next day, August 19, 2010, I leave at day break for the 440 KM drive back to Calgary with a stop in Golden for breakfast and gas for the car. I stop one more time to photograph a dynamic sky. It is the last picture in the set which follows and may be a fitting end to this fabulous journey and adventure.
Barry Taylor is an avid hiker who has explored some of the more grueling and scenic hikes in North America. Based in Calgary, he's explored the heights of the Canadian Rockies and even the depths of the Grand Canyon. Follow Barry's adventures of hiking in Glacier National Park at Hiking with Barry.